March 17 -- Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV
Winner: Juan Manuel Marquez UD-12
And now, I will have to go on defending a fight that I genuinely loved, that most people, I believe, slept on.
Coming two weeks after the first fight between Israel Vazquez and Juan Manuel's brother, Rafael Marquez, was a 130-pound title fight between the two best Mexican boxers in the division, and in the minds of many at the time, the two best Mexican fighters in the sport today, period.
Hall of Fame-bound Marco Antonio Barrera brought the WBC super featherweight strap and his 63-4 record to Las Vegas on March 17, to take his greatest challenge in years, from elite featherweight Juan Manuel Marquez, owner of a 46-3-1 mark. Barrera had long since made his legend. Marquez had for years been on the cusp of greatness, only for bad business decisions by his trainer and manager, Nacho Beristain, and ill-timed losses to block his path to greatness.
Marquez, 33, had no more time to waste. This was it. He was moving up a division, looking for the greater glory. He was working on a two-fight win streak over Terdsak Jandaeng and Jimrex Jaca, both knockouts that displayed a new aggressive nature, following a controversial decision loss in Indonesia to featherweight titlist Chris John in 2006. His other notable loss (his first loss was his first fight) came to Freddie Norwood in 1999.
Barrera, at a slightly younger 33 years, was on his own win streak. Six straight fights had seen Marco Antonio emerge victorious, four of them on points, and two of them controversial. His 2003 loss to Manny Pacquiao, in which he was overwhelmed by the young Filipino dynamo, still seemed, in many ways, to haunt him. Long gone was the blood-and-guts Mexican warrior; in his place, a boxer-puncher, looking to prolong a brilliant career.
Marquez would be Barrera's stiffest test since the third fight with Erik Morales in 2004. Since then, he had beaten Mzonke Fana, Robbie Peden and Rocky Juarez (twice). The stage was set for an all-Mexican showdown at 130 pounds, maybe for the chance to get a second crack at Pacquiao, who held no world title, but was almost universally considered the best at 130 pounds.
And, I'll tell you, I still fail to figure out why this fight didn't get more praise. It was phenomenal.
For all someone could say about Bika-Codrington being an exciting but bush league-styled fight, there was a fight this year -- a major fight -- that had two superior professional boxers going back-and-forth the whole way.
Marquez and Barrera were dead even in the first round, but the old Marco Antonio Barrera showed up some in the second frame, with vintage attacks and tremendous defense that thwarted the majority of Marquez's attempts on offense. Barrera was looking quick, determined, and a step ahead of the challenger. That would stay consistent in the third round, with the two opening up in a big exchange near the end of the round, much of it being missed.
Truth be told, through four rounds, I thought Barrera was looking, simply, like the better fighter. He was smarter, he was quicker, he was landing better shots, and he was the aggressor, but not in a reckless manner. Near the end of the round Marquez again came with a flurry, and Barrera was willing to engage.
It was the fifth round where Marquez really turned up the heat. A big right landed upstairs, and Barrera seemed ready to back down a bit, as Juan Manuel was landing short, hard, pinpoint accurate punches both to the head and body. Marquez worked the uppercut that Beristain had been asking him to use more, and he slammed Barrera with a left hook that rocked the champion. Through it all, though, Barrera was still fighting well, landing a beautiful jab that kept him in the fight.
The sixth round was excellent. Barrera landed a fine right hand, and kept up with the wonderful defense that had knocked back all of Marquez's bombs, and he had thrown plenty of them, looking to really shake Barrera's tree. There was a really great trade again toward the end of the round. Every round, they fought the entire three minutes.
But, it was also in the sixth that Jay Nady started, in my opinion, to over-referee the fight. Warning Marquez for holding, when holding had not been a factor, was dumb. Barrera then was warned. The crowd booed. They should have. Nady was stepping into the middle of a tremendous boxing match when there was no reason to do so.
The seventh was when Nady really screwed up, though.
Marquez came out showing his hand -- he was going to press the action, hard, and attack Marco Antonio Barrera with everything he had. And Barrera wasn't ready for it. A vicious straight right landed, and Barrera was stunned. An uppercut, a big right, a left hook. Barrera was in serious trouble, with Marquez unloading with shot after shot, and Barrera hanging on for dear life.
In a flash, it changed. Barrera landed a stiff right that moved Marquez back, but Juan Manuel charged forward again. Bam! A beautiful right hand sends Marquez crashing down.
And then, Marco hit him while he was down. But the even bigger problem was, Jay Nady didn't call the knockdown.
It was a stupid and blatant infraction on the part of Marco Antonio Barrera. As I've said before, there was a mean streak to the supposed gentleman Barrera, which reared its ugly head again later in the year when he clearly cheapshotted Manny Pacquiao in their rematch. He could be a true blue son of a bitch in the ring.
But while the point deserved to be taken, there is no doubt that he knocked Marquez down. If that was a slip, my cat is a Ph.damn.D.
With the cloud of Jay Nady's crap refereeing job hanging over the fight, Marquez and Barrera kept fighting on as they had all night. The rest of the fight was just as good as the first seven rounds had been. Two great fighters putting forth a superb technical effort, with enough bluster to please those that love the big punching.
When HBO flashed the Compubox stats after nine rounds, they read like this: Barrera had landed 204 punches out of 529 thrown. Marquez? 203 out of 529. You don't get closer than that.
Marquez swept the championship rounds on my card, and I had it 114-114, with the controversial seventh round at 9-9 with the point taken from Barrera. Even in the final ten seconds, they put it all out there, knowing it was too close for comfort on either side. Barrera was wobbled, but held on. We went to the cards.
Maybe we should've known. After all, Steve Forbes had been robbed of a points win over Demetrius Hopkins earlier in the night, and Daniel Ponce de Leon took a very wide margin victory over Gerry Penalosa in what was a highly competitive bout, that many even felt Penalosa won.
118-109. 116-111. 116-111. All for Marquez.
Emanuel Steward said, "Y'know, I've given up on judges."
It's not that Marquez winning was a shame. The fight could've gone either way. But what fights were the judges watching in Vegas that night?
If there's one thing I do truly regret about 2007, it's that we never got a Marquez-Barrera rematch. The fight was good enough that it called for it, and the scoring and the seventh round controversy also meant that a second fight made plenty of sense. Instead, we got a zombie Barrera against Pacquiao in October, with Marquez returning in a dominant but sort of ho-hum win over Rocky Juarez in November.
It was the last great performance of Marco Antonio Barrera's storied career, and it was also the fight that finally, at long last, put Juan Manuel Marquez's name on the map to more than just the hardcore boxing fans. I loved the fight. I wish we'd seen it one more time.
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